Tips to keep online teaching on point

Some friends are moving to online teaching. I’ve done it for some years, but since late February I’ve been teaching pretty big classes online, not just the small ones I tend to prefer.

Each week I teach around 100 students ranging in ages from seven to 70. Most of those I teach are 11 to adolescent. I am always tired, but my students energise me, I love them.

Online teaching is much harder work – prep has to be brilliant, especially getting papers to students on time. Not all will be able to print and if too many open their screens to view papers, you will experience crashes, screen freezes or audio problems. 

Do not allow them to chat using the chat function – that is for you and teaching notes to them only, although I also let mine send me private notes with questions.

Do not allow those cool background screens they love, because they are distracting. Students will start vying for the coolest screen, and the system will crash.

The teacher has to be brilliant at screen sharing, encouraging note taking, and paying attention to their emotional state. I get my kids to start with one good thing that happened to them since the last lesson. They rely on your kindness, empathy, honesty and connection more than at any other time of their lives (and so do their parents, who are often stressed and irritable).

I note down what homework there will be during the lesson, and at the end of the lesson I get each participant to note an aspect of homework, so they have a double opportunity to check that they know what the homework is.

In class, I can edit participant’s work rapidly. However, online I can’t – and I am teaching too many students in multiple classes with different subjects. What I do is encourage peer review – and I do this in in-person classes too. After a student has read his or her writing, their peers commend one aspect of it, then note one area where they believe the other could have improved his or her writing. I tell them that this is essential because no matter how good a piece appears, everything can be improved upon, and if they are able to analyse the work of others, they will be better able to analyse their own writing and avoid pitfalls.

Big wake up call to teachers: You can’t teach the same boring old stuff you have for years. Forget it. Your students now have multiple possible distractions – their phones, video games, drawings, or they can just put you on mute, or themselves on mute, darken their screen, or opt out. You have to become an entertainer. Yes, it’s exhausting, but worthwhile because it keeps them engaged.

Know if a student’s birthday is coming up and lead the class in singing. You have no idea what a dreadful voice I have, but it means a lot to young people who will be experiencing their loneliest birthdays yet.

Today I am teaching two big classes of seven and eight-year-olds. Challenging does not begin to describe it, but I move fast through an array of things. For example, I have them keeping a Nature Journal, and each student brings something into class from nature (it also encourages them to look at the world around them and to become great with descriptive terms). We will read together WHO’s book for kids on Covid. They have spelling and also have to look up the meanings of the words. They’ll do punctuation of a text from a children’s book – I remove punctuation from every second paragraph of one page of text. And they will learn basic literary terms: metaphors, similes and point of view. We cover a lot in one class, but in video teaching, if you keep moving it keeps them engaged.

I have my young ones up to age 11 keeping a book to write their autobiography in; that includes researching family history, noting things that they have done, friends, etc. They love this. Lots are writing about Covid.

I’ve got all of them to set Covid goals – so they write Covid acrostically – I give them a range of words to riff off under each letter, then they develop a goal. And not just “cleaning my room” but I’m telling them this is an opportunity to achieve mastery in something, so I’m helping guide them toward that – and pretty much anything can fall under a writing class.

I find my kids are more attentive during video classes and are getting through unbelievable amounts of homework, but I think it’s because I work hard to address their interests and develop classes around them. As examples, we’ve done classes on rock climbing, jazz, great architects and architecture, space and planets including the International Space Station, Shakespeare and his works, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It’s Earth Day this month so we are doing things around that – fables and mythology, animal fact files, the centenary of white women getting the vote, and my older kids will begin a new class on the art, literature and music of hip hop and rap this weekend.

They have all written or are in the process of writing letters of thanks to medical workers, cops, and fire station staff – young people feel very disempowered and anxious, and this gives them a sense of doing something positive. One of my boys has received 20 letters back from grateful medical staff; and another two raised close to $10 000 to buy masks for hospital staff (I sent 100 to a doctor friend in Florida too).

I type out my classwork each day and keep a record of it, but my students are also good at reminding me if I’ve forgotten something. They know I’m overwhelmed and none are kinder to me than they are. I tell you, young people are incredible, and here, online, you get insights into them in a new and fabulous way.

Final tip, try not to be a haughty teacher, it’s so dull. I’m informal, but they also know they need to toe the line. Anyone who fails to do homework twice in a row gets his/her homework load doubled; or extra homework for the whole class. I only have to do it once.

I’ve been so lucky in my life, I’ve only ever done work I’ve loved. Teaching is the career where you will always be invisible, but it is where you can have a lasting influence. I think of some of the famous people I interviewed as a journalist: Nelson Mandela, Judge Richard Goldstone, many others, I would ask, who had the greatest impact on your life? They’d think for a while and say, “there was this teacher…”

I want to be that teacher.

If you are an online teacher, it would be helpful if you could share your ideas as well, so we can help each other.

Charlene Smith is a multi-award winning journalist and author who has been locked down in Boston since early March. She teaches writing and literature online to more than 100 students each week, ranging in age from seven to 70.